Community Radio in Latin America: fighting to be recognized

Radio undoubtedly has been the most inclusive medium of communication. Its low cost not only allows broadcasters to reach the most remote areas, but includes all people, regardless of socioeconomic or education level, in democratic debate.

Radio undoubtedly has been the most inclusive medium of communication. Its low cost not only allows broadcasters to reach the most remote areas, but includes all people, regardless of socioeconomic or education level, in democratic debate.

In recognition of this, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) proclaimed the first World Radio Day in 2013 with the purpose of recognizing the importance of radio every Feb. 13.

To mark World Radio Day, the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas is publishing today the first posts of a special project about community radio in Latin America, taking into account the role that they have played in society.

It is these radio stations, which offer space for minorities or those that have been "traditionally excluded" in the words of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR)

Those radio stations work so that this “phenomenon of exclusion,” which has an effect of silencing communication in a manner similar to censorship, does not continue, according to the Special Rapporteur’s report “Standards of freedom of expression for free and inclusive broadcasting.”

Latin America has been one of the leaders on this topic. In fact, it is considered as the “cradle of community radio,” according to the report  “Tuning into Development: International comparative survey of community broadcasting regulation,” published by UNESCO in 2015.

However, their ability to achieve this goal has been hampered at times by the lack of legal recognition - some countries do not have legislation on the subject - or because existing regulation does not comply with international standardsin this matter.

Additionally, violence against media workers in the region has included members of community radios who are more vulnerable targets. This is especially because of the the geographic location in which many these radios works: far from big cities and controlled, in many cases, by organized crime or corrupt politicians.

For example, two community radio journalists were killed in Brazil in 2015. Djalma Santos de Conceição, a 53-year-old journalist for RCA FM in the state of Bahia, was killed after being kidnapped in May. Paraguayan journalist Gerardo Ceferino Servían Coronel of Ciudad Nueva FM was killed in March in Ponta Porã, Brazil on the border with Paraguay.

International recognition, obstacles at the national level

Community media, including radio, are defined as “private entities with public objectives,” according to the Principles for a democratic legislation on community broadcasting from the World Association of Community Radios (AMARC).

“Their fundamental characteristic is the participation of the community, in ownership as well as programming, management, operation, financing and evaluation. They are independent and non-governmental media that do not depend on or are part of political parties or private firms,” according to AMARC.

Different international organizations, including UNESCO, the United Nations, the IACHR and others, have emphasized the need for adequate legislation for these media.

"Community broadcasting should be explicitly recognized in law as a distinct form of broadcasting," according to a joint statement by the four rapporteurs for freedom of expression (from the UN, IACHR, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe and the African Commission).

As established in a report by the Special Rapporteur of the IACHR, this legislation should, among other things, establish simple procedures for obtaining licenses, should not demand “severe” technological requirements that prevent access to them, and the possibility of using different manners of funding.”

"In general, the situation of community radio has two levels. An international level with an important recognition by all parts of the United Nations, but also at the regional level. The problem is always the fracture of national legislation despite the existence of international conventions," said Francesco Diasio, Secretary General of AMARC, in conversation with the Knight Center.

The situation in Latin America could be divided into four stages, as explained by Damián Loreti, a vice president of AMARC, in an interview with the Knight Center. These are: persecution, minimal recognition, tolerance and provision of full rights.

For Loreti, there are countries in the region that want to close community radios through different mechanisms, ranging from the intervention of security forces to court-ordered closure. This is an especially difficult situation for radios in indigenous communities.

In other countries, the radios are recognized, but with reluctance, “that is, they exist because they must exist," Loreti said. In these places, their coverage is usually minimal.

Finally, there are countries where there is no difference between community radio and other radio, and countries where community radios have special recognition.

In this last category are countries like Argentina (despite the fact that its media law is currently under review) and Uruguay. Nevertheless, he described as positive the changes made by Colombia, Bolivia, El Salvador and the expectation that things could change in Mexico.

On the other hand, the situation in Guatemala is "grave", according to Diasio. Loreti sees the situation in the same way.

However, he said that the proposed law currently being discussed in the country’s Congress "is a significant improvement."

The Guatemalan Congress is considering the Law of Community Media, lobbied for by civil society and indigenous communities, which seeks to regulate the media and guarantee these communities a space in the media of the country.

On this issue, the Special Rapporteur of the IACHR urged Guatemala to "adopt legislation" and recalled that since 2000 the office has called for the country to establish a "more fair and inclusive legal framework" for these radios, according to a statement released on Feb. 11. As of the publication of this Knight Center post, there are no updates on the approval of the law.

In addition to changes in legislation, Loreti considers that an important aspect for achieving significant improvements is putting into practicee these news regulations. According to him, in many countries these changes established by law are not respected.

There are many powerful and wealthy media groups who are not willing to lose power to smaller media outlets. This becomes a factor when countries decide to regulate media.

For Loreti, the difficulty ahead for approving regulations related to community media and putting them in place, is related to the role that community plays in the establishment of power in society. Powerful and wealthy media groups are not willing to lose it.

"Community radios and small media entrepreneurs want the exact opposite, they are a mirror and window for society, and when the criteria of business or empowerment of the big enterprises prevails, one of the places where this power is seen is in the legislation,” Loreti said.

Celebrating radio

For this year’s celebration, with the theme of “radio in times of disaster and emergency,” radio stations around Latin America will offer special programming. Many, for example, registered their events with UNESCO; listeners can search a map to find programming in their area.

On its site, UNESCO is also offering on Feb. 13 special programming in Spanish prepared by Spanish radio network Cadena SER and Radio Nacional de Paraguay. Another program is available in English and was prepared by Radio France International, BBC Media Action, students from the American University of Paris, the Ethical Journalism Network, UNESCO-Crossing Institute and others.

UNESCO encouraged radio listeners to celebrate World Radio Day with #RadioSavesLives and #WorldRadioDay on Twitter.

Note from the editor: This story was originally published by the Knight Center’s blog Journalism in the Americas, the predecessor of LatAm Journalism Review.